Surfer’s ear points to ancient pearl divers in Panama

Although examining a skull from your ancient burial ground in a pre-Columbian village in Panama, Nicole Smith-Guzmán, bioarchaeologist at the Smithsonian Warm Research Institute (STRI), was surprised to discover an example of surfers’ ear canal: a small, bony lump in the ear cacera common among surfers, kayakers and free divers in cold climates. After examining more skulls, she figured a select group of male divers — perhaps looking for pearls and oyster shells coveted for precious jewelry making, could have existed along Panama’s Pacific shoreline long ago.

“Bone is a dynamic tissue that responds to external stimuli, so changes in bone structure provide great signs about where and how a person lived and died, ” Smith-Guzmán said. “When I looked at an additional 125 skulls from nine burial sites across Panama, I came across more effective cases of surfers’ ear canal in males and another in a female skull, all from sites near to the Gulf of mexico of Panama. ”

Zero one really understands exactly how the bony clumps, technically called exostoses, form. But the skin is thin in the ear canal canal and the accepted theory is that cool water or cold temperature ranges caused by wind and water make the bone react by growing extra layers, like the way bone spurs form on the feet and in other areas where there is frequent irritation or stress. Practically half of the people of a swimming membership in the uk had surfer’s ear canal in accordance with a report mentioned in the analysis.

Unlike most tropical countries where seawater is warm, water temp in the Gulf of Panama plummets between Jan and April when strong trade winds from the north force warm surface water out into the Pacific and colder, strong water rises to the surface to replace it all. This strong, nutrient-rich water feeds tiny sea organisms, which in turn are eaten by fish and whales. The Gulf becomes an extraordinarily productive fishing ground supporting a thriving fishing industry and attracting dolphins, sharks and other top-of-the-food-chain animals.

Years ago, when co-author Richard Cooke, zooarchaeologist at STRI, unearthed a male skeleton with surfer’s ear in Sitio Sierra, near Aguadulce in Panama, he was a STRI post-doctoral student with only rudimentary knowledge of physical anthropology. But he collected all of the human remains he found, enabling Nicole-Smith Guzmán to reexamine them 43 years later.

Cooke spent much of his career studying ancient fishing practices. He found that Panama’s pre-Columbian peoples fished from boats all along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Panama. If fishing alone put people at higher risk for surfer’s ear, then more cases of the bony growth would be present at all of the sites, but all of the examples came from areas close to the Gulf.

“We think it more likely that diving in the cold waters of the Gulf caused these cases of surfer’s ear, ” Smith-Guzmán said. “Silvery mother-of-pearl ornaments, and orange and purple ones from two large ‘thorny’ oysters in the Spondylus genus were common in burials and comprised an important trade item in the region. Some of these shells wash up on beaches, but by the time Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and other Spanish explorers arrived, their chronicles tell us that expert divers were trained from childhood to dive down to four fathoms to retrieve pearl oysters of desirable large size. ”

The Spanish encouraged this industry and for many years, Panama was known for its pirates and pearls, including La Peregrina, the biggest pearl known at the time it was found.

The team also ruled out fungal or bacterial ear infections common in the tropics that sometimes cause bone deformations: the majority of the skulls impacted were from males, and infections should occur in both male and females at about the same rate. From the evidence they have so far, it looks like mostly males were involved in whatever activity caused surfer’s ear in Panama. In another study, archaeologists in the Canaries found roughly equal amounts of situations of surfer’s ear in ancient male and feminine skulls, suggesting that aquatic activities there were not limited to one gender.

“I chatted to one ear, nose area and throat specialist in Panama and she has never seen an instance of surfer’s ear here, but we want to do a follow-up study in which we look at skulls from a much wider area and also execute a survey of medical doctors in Panama to determine if surfers or divers ever before turn up with surfer’s ear canal today, ” Smith-Guzmán said.

Surfer’s ear is an intriguing subject that archaeology, anthropologists and medical medical doctors have explored for over a century. Although the exact factors behind this phenomenon is still debated, these bony growths offer important signs into the cultural activities, gendered division of work and environmental conditions previously.

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